As war rages in Europe, citizens of the world’s democracies would be forgiven for wondering what went wrong.
Just about three decades ago, the Soviet Union fell, and some proclaimed an “end of history.” Former Soviet states appeared to be on the path to liberalization. The Chinese Communist Party would, with economic growth and globalization, become a responsible stakeholder of world order — or so leaders assured us.
But things took a different direction. Today, the world’s leading democracies do not have the technology they need to deter revisionist powers that, as Russia has shown, are willing to launch major wars to achieve their aims.
America’s defense industrial base, which once produced technology straight out of science fiction, all but stopped innovating. China and Russia aggressively modernized their armed forces, building weapons specifically designed to neutralize America’s. The results are sobering: Today, in U.S. Defense Department wargames that model conflicts with China, China wins.
Only superior military technology can credibly deter war — but our defense companies are losing the ability to build it. In decades past, the West’s greatest scientific minds dedicated their careers to national security. John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and Kelly Johnson worked on cutting-edge science and engineering in the national interest. War research and development turned futuristic dreams into household staples: personal computing, GPS, the Internet, commercial air travel, and much more.
Today, there is more AI in a Tesla than in any U.S. military vehicle and better computer vision in your Snapchat app than in any system the Department of Defense owns. Until 2019, America’s nuclear arsenal operated off of floppy disks.
How did it come to this? Starting in the 1960s and building steadily in the decades that followed, our defense industry and government leaders became more interested in process than progress. Unlike other industries, defense companies are not asked to innovate — they await painstaking specifications instructing them what to build. Defense firms are also reimbursed by taxpayers for every hour they work, well before they’ve built a working product. And if delivery schedules slip, what is the government to do? Cancel the contract, wasting billions of taxpayer dollars and potentially bankrupting the company in the process? Or salvage the program with even more money? The infamous city planner Robert Moses knew the answer: “Once you sink that first stake,” he said, “they’ll never make you pull it up.”
The result is a defense industry that spends a measly 1 to 4 percent of revenue on internal research and development, compared to 10 to 20 percent at major tech companies and 40 percent or higher at technology startups. Why innovate when you have no competition? The 10 largest defense companies account for upwards of 80 percent of the industry’s revenue. Nearly two-thirds of major weapons-systems contracts in the United States have just one bidder. Those who take on the defense giants must fight the bureaucracy tooth and claw. Both SpaceX and Palantir, arguably the only two defense-technology success stories in recent decades, had to sue their customers for a fair shot at winning large contracts.
It’s time to reboot the arsenal of democracy. My company Anduril is just one of a slew of new companies building technology for our warfighters based on a few simple principles.
Outpacing the Threat
In 2018, Under Secretary for Research and Engineering Mike Griffin noted that, on average, it takes the United States 16 years to deliver an idea to operational capability, compared to under seven years for China. In the Middle East, well-financed terrorist organizations and militias iterate monthly on their armed drones. Simply put, we need defense companies that are fast, that build off their own dime, and sell their products “off the shelf.”
Build to Mission, Not to Spec
Jeff Bezos, Steve Jobs, Elon Musk, and other great tech entrepreneurs had distinct images of the future and how their products would shape it — images independent of, and often directly contradicted by, the opinions of those around them. The next great defense companies will behave exactly like this — listening to customers, working closely, and then coming up with solutions of their own, without recourse to onerous program specifications.
Software is finally eating the battlefield, whether the defense industry likes it or not. Autonomous systems, networked weapons, cyberweapons, and more are enabled in part or in total by software — and new companies must build it. The prime contractors are used to slowly developing large, exquisite hardware systems like fighter jets. Software, by contrast, is developed by shipping a minimum viable product out the door as quickly as possible and seeing where it fails. The next generation of software-defined defense companies will respond rapidly and continuously to the performance of their products, to such an extent that deployment and iteration will be elements of the development process itself.
Controlling Defense Budgets
The biggest lie of the political debate surrounding defense spending is that we are stuck in a dichotomy between doing “more with more” or “less with less.” This is a false choice: The essence of technology is doing more with less. With unmanned systems performing the dull, dirty, dangerous jobs of defense work, companies privately funding research and development and cutting costs, and a swell of competitive new entrants into the defense industry, we can rejuvenate our military’s technology while saving taxpayers billions of dollars.
There is no secret government silo of advanced technology that will save us if war breaks out: You must build it. Whether you are an engineer looking for a higher purpose than building photo filters, a government leader who wants to make a difference, or an entrepreneur founding a company — if you have read this far, you care about the future of our collective defense. Help us to reboot the arsenal of democracy and make that future safe, prosperous, and free.
Trae Stephens is co-founder and executive chairman of Anduril Industries, a cutting-edge defense technology company, and a partner at venture capital firm Founders Fund, where he invests across sectors with a particular interest in startups operating in the government space.
Previously, Trae was an early employee at Palantir Technologies, where he led teams focused on growth in the intelligence/defense space as well as international expansion. Prior to Palantir, Trae served as a computational linguist within the United States intelligence community.
Read Anduril’s full mission document here.